FOXBOROUGH — Patriots de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores was asked Wednesday what impresses him most about Aaron Rodgers.
“Um,” he responded, “where do I start?”
Bill Belichick was asked a similar question a few minutes later.
“Killed us the last time we played them,” Belichick deadpanned. Then he went down the list of what makes Rodgers great: his accuracy, vision, mobility, command of the offense, good situational player.
“He can even play golf. He’s a good golfer, too,” Belichick said, recalling the time the two played together in a pro-am at Pebble Beach. “I’m not in that league.”
Belichick has seen Rodgers on the golf course as much as he has on the football field. Rodgers is in his 14th NFL season, but Sunday night’s game will be just his second against the Patriots, and his first trip to Gillette Stadium.
Rodgers was Brett Favre’s backup in 2006, missed the 2010 matchup with a concussion, and led the Packers to a 26-21 victory over the Patriots at Lambeau Field in 2014, throwing for 368 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m in no rush to see him every week,” Belichick quipped. “He’s as good as anybody that I’ve faced, and we’ve faced a lot of good ones through the years.”
Wednesday’s media sessions were a veritable lovefest between Rodgers and the Patriots.
Rodgers will turn 35 on Dec. 2, but isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. He’s averaging a career-best 326.1 passing yards per game. He has 13 touchdown passes against just one interception. He still has the same pocket presence, mobility, and rocket arm that has made him a six-time Pro Bowl selection and two-time league MVP.
And Rodgers set off the 2018 season with a bang in Week 1, coming back from a mid-game knee injury to bring the Packers back from a 23-3 deficit in a 24-23 win over the Bears. He has been playing with a knee brace since then.
“He’s an incredible leader. Tough,” Flores said. “You see him get carted off in the Chicago game, come back, and bring them back from 20 points down. They’re never out of the game with him leading the charge, and it’s an incredible challenge for us.”
The Packers may be 3-3-1, and Rodgers’s completion percentage (61.3) may be the second-lowest of his career, but he certainly has the Patriots’ attention and respect.
“Just one of the great quarterbacks in the National Football League, no question about it,” Belichick said.
Tom Brady didn’t speak publicly on Wednesday, but he has been effusive in his praise of Rodgers over the years. Both are Northern California natives and have become good friends, trading messages during the season and sharing training tips out of season.
“What he’s done as a quarterback, I think it is inspiring, even for me,” Brady said this week on WEEI. “I watch his game and it makes me want to get out there and practice and improve because I think he’s so phenomenal, with the way he manages himself in the pocket and his ability to throw the football. It’s pretty awesome to watch.”
Rodgers returned the praise on Wednesday.
“The feeling is mutual,” Rodgers said. “Just the stuff he does on the field is phenomenal, and to see him as he’s gotten older in his career continue to reinvent himself year after year . . . He’s a pioneer as far as taking care of his body and rewriting the longevity books for players of his caliber. Any time I get a chance, whether he’s on Thursday night, Sunday night, or Monday night, I’m for sure tuning in.”
When Rodgers was set to take over the Packers’ starting quarterback job in 2008, he studied almost all of Brady’s snaps from the 2007 season. His biggest takeaway?
“First was pocket movement,” Rodgers said. “Not looking at the rush and being able to find that soft spot in the pocket is something he’s just been incredible at. It’s an innate sense, it’s one thing that I definitely took from him.”
Rodgers credits Brady for showing athletes how to stay in peak physical condition into their 40s, but he isn’t sure he is going to last as long as Brady has.
“Tom’s kind of the outlier, he’s a unicorn,” Rodgers said. “Obviously what he’s done in making it more public now with his diet and his workout regimen, that kind of sets a blueprint. We all have our own ways of taking care of ourselves, but it’s a great reminder of how important diet is to your overall performance.”
Rodgers is also effusive in his praise of Belichick. There was “not a lot of football talk” when they played together at Pebble Beach, but they had a memorable moment at the 2014 game at Lambeau.
“One thing I do remember about that was him waiting after the game to give me some nice words,” Rodgers said. “And that’s something that really stuck with me in 2014.”
Brady and Belichick have faced great quarterbacks before — 17 times against Peyton Manning alone. But unless Brady and Rodgers play each other in a Super Bowl, this could be their second and last matchup. The Patriots and Packers aren’t scheduled to play again until 2022 at Lambeau.
“For the fans and for everybody alike, if you love football, this is a fantastic opportunity to see two great players line up,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “If you want to study how to play quarterback, then you need to watch that game Sunday night.”
To play up the game, NBC created a promo featuring Michael Jordan debating Brady and Rodgers as the best quarterbacks to ever play. Rodgers shot down that story line on Wednesday.
“He’s got five championships. I think that ends most discussions,” Rodgers said.
But Rodgers isn’t far off. And a game like this doesn’t come around often. Last winter, when the NFL’s four TV networks were bidding for games, NBC had Patriots-Packers as its top priority.
“It was for us, definitely. It’s the game that we targeted that we really wanted to have,” said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” “I’m sure it had to be 1 or 1A on Fox’s list, and I’m sure it was 1 or 1A on ESPN’s list. But we were fortunate enough that it ended up on the ‘Sunday Night Football’ schedule.”